Book Review – ‘Master of Sorrows’ by Justin Call

Title: Master of Sorrows
Author: Justin Call
Genre: Fantasy
Publication Details: by Hachette Australia on 26th February, 2019
Word/Page Count: 448 pages (paperback)


The Academy of Chaenbalu has stood against magic for centuries.

Hidden from the world, acting from the shadows, it trains its students to detect and retrieve magic artifacts, which it jealously guards from the misuse of others. Because magic is dangerous: something that heals can also harm, and a power that aids one person may destroy another.

Of the Academy’s many students, only the most skilled can become Avatars – warrior thieves, capable of infiltrating the most heavily guarded vaults – and only the most determined can be trusted to resist the lure of magic.

More than anything, Annev de Breth wants to become one of them.

Whatever you do, do not read the Goodreads blurb! It gives away a major plot point that isn’t even explored in this book, and is instead set up to be mined for dramatic potential in the sequel. I can see the reasoning in giving away a future plot twist because the subversion of the Chosen One trope is really compelling and what prompted me to request this from the publisher. However considering that the first book really only hints at this development, that’s a good way to get people excited and then let down at the end when it goes nowhere fast. But I’m still glad I received this book because it was an addictive and riveting read, so putting the blurb aside, let me judge this book on its own merits.

First off, the world-building was incredible and I’m even more impressed after finding out that this is the author’s debut novel! There were a LOT of intricate details woven into the story and indicated that this fantasy setting had been given a great deal of thought and consideration, and for the most part it was communicated quite effectively to the reader. It’s helpful having our protagonist at a magical school because we can learn along with him, but polished writing is still needed to make sure we understand this universe without throwing in large sections of the dreaded info-dump.

However I did have to train my brain to be very alert from the start – I’m used to breezing along merrily through a book, but here I often had to re-read things to understand (or remember) a new term that had been introduced or the relevant historical or mythological tidbit.  I suppose that’s the difference with epic fantasy, it’s just so much more dense and detailed than standard fantasy books! Be prepared to engage in active reading because if some trivia is introduced, there will be a test on it later!

Now, all the elegant world-building imaginable means nothing to me if I don’t care for the protagonist, but luckily Annev is a relatable, endearing and easy-to-root-for main character. He reminds me of Tavi from the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher, which is a high compliment from me – I love when male protagonists are shown to be cunning and succeed through using their wits instead of relying on good fortune or authorial decree. Annev faces many challenges in this book, and while he doesn’t win every time, it’s so satisfying seeing his brain ticking away trying to outsmart his opponents or find an unexpected way around an obstacle. Admittedly, he does have his moments of being a dumb teenage boy as you can see the romantic arc is going to turn into a trainwreck from a mile away, yet Annev blithely disregards all the warning signs because he’s so smitten with Myjun…but that’s sadly realistic. Love is blind!

Sodar is an amazing mentor figure – he’s reminiscent of Belgarath the Sorcerer from The Belgariad series by David and Leigh Eddings, but much warmer and more openly affectionate. The cranky mentor stereotype always amuses me with their sardonic wit and tough love balancing out the protagonist’s naivete and earnest sincerity, but I like this variation with Sodar who allows himself to be sentimental at times and show his emotions.

The secondary characters include the usual school bully in the odious Fyn (who surprised me with his character development beyond that caricature), a couple of stalwart friends in Titus and Therin (I’ll admit to mixing them up, the names aren’t at all similar, but somehow the fact they both start with ‘T’ kept confusing me), the tyrannical headmaster Tosan and his daughter, the aforementioned Myjun. With Myjun, just as with Fyn, the author takes the opportunity to flesh these characters out beyond my expectations – I thought they would remain simply the jackass bully and the token love interest, but oh no! Even though they may not get much page-time, they make their presence felt with the changes wrought in their characters and the alternate paths they’ve chosen by the end.

The basic concept of an extraordinary young man gifted with magical powers who has a special destiny is nothing new, but what I really appreciate with Master of Sorrows is how there’s often a subtle twist to each familiar aspect, something to make the standard tropes feel fresh and reinvigorated. For instance, we have a special orphan at a magical academy – but his fellow students are ALL orphans in a way because they’ve been abducted from home and never given the chance to know their parents. Everyone has a tragic backstory!

Of course, Annev has the additional burden of being magically gifted in a place where magic is outlawed, plus the locals are murderously hostile to anyone with a visible deformity and he was born missing a hand. Chaenbalu is basically the worst place for him to grow up and I’m a little puzzled why Sodar decided it was worth the risk of bringing up Annev around those who had murdered his parents and would do the same to him if his secrets were exposed. But it certainly adds tension and moments of adrenaline-spiked panic when it appears that the truth about Annev is about to be revealed! I know I had to skip a page or two ahead at times to see what the fallout was because I couldn’t handle the anxiety!

At first sight, I found the 500+ page tome to be a little daunting, but the pacing was swift with relatively short chapters and there was an excellent balance between character building moments and danger and excitement. I was drawn into Annev’s personal struggles to be an individual and honor his moral code in a system which punished that behavior, and it left me on tenterhooks to see which way he would swing and what repercussions he would face as a result. Then a chapter later he would be facing a life-or-death situation that left my heart pounding and nerves shrieking. :O This combination kept me speeding through the book and when I turned the final page, it was in disbelief that I had reached the end so quickly!

Master of Sorrows is a lot darker than my normal YA fantasy picks, and it broke my heart in places, but reading outside of my comfort zone was a really rewarding choice and I hope this finds a broad audience. 🙂 The setup for the sequel has me excited to read more about Annev’s adventures and his journey to becoming an anti-hero!

Pros: relatable lead, great pacing, excellent world-building, thrilling plot

Cons: information overload, grimdark, no main female characters (YMMV, but that’s a con for me!)

Personal Rating: 3.5 out of 5 kitties recommend this book.


Disclaimer: Physical copy provided by publisher free for an unbiased review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

11 thoughts on “Book Review – ‘Master of Sorrows’ by Justin Call

  1. That’s a fantastic review, Annie – and excellent advice in your preface. As you noted, this is the first book in a tetralogy, and folks who buy into the marketing for the series might not get what they want in this first book . . . but it’s all leading to the same place.

    Hard to balance that, I suppose. If you don’t mention such things at the outset, some readers feel disenchanted or deceived by the end of the series. On the other hand, if you mention it at the start of the series, some folks expect you to deliver on the promise of the premise before they reach the last page of the book.

    I’m happy with my approach as the author . . . but I don’t envy my marketing team. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    I expect folks who read this will be well-informed if they choose to purchase the book. Kudos – and thanks again for the review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marketing is definitely tricky! Without that hook, I may not have requested this book since the anti-hero aspect had me super keen and it distinguished Master of Sorrows from the rest of the fantasy crowd. But at the same time I desperately wanted to see the ‘reincarnation of EVILLLLL’ play a more active role so that left me hanging!

      I certainly can’t wait to see what happens next knowing the possibilities. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

    • thank you 🙂 I do enjoy action, as I think we all do because it’s exciting and usually helps propel the plot forward, but world-building is crucial to give that some context and meaning, and it’d be a chore to read a 500+ page book without being immersed in that world! I was really astonished at how quickly I sped through this book, it was just so engrossing I didn’t notice the pages flying by!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you SO MUCH for the warning to stay away from the official blurb, I really hate it when spoilers are in the damn book synopsis… and even worse when it isn’t even in the book. I have been looking forward to this book because of that tagline I’ve seen all over twitter, and you have saved me from a lot of frustration.

    This is a great review though, thank you so much! I love worldbuilding so much, it’s my favorite part of fantasy books, and it is good to know that it can be a bit dense at times. I will be sure to pick this up when I am in the right mood!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad I was able to warn you in advance so that you weren’t let down when reading it! it’s an awesome tagline, but a bit reckless to publicize that character development in the book PRIOR to it actually happening! I’m looking forward to the anti-hero goodness down the track though 🙂

      world-building is basically what we come to fantasy for, so I’m always glad when an author shows that they’ve fully visualized this new world in their head and can invite us into their vision!

      appreciate the lovely comment, thank you and I hope you enjoy this when you get to it ❤

      Liked by 2 people

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